The Appalachian Trail Conservancy estimates that about 3 million people hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail (AT) each year, a number that continues to grow. The more crowded the trail gets, the more bottlenecks of hikers on ridgelines, overflowing camping shelters, erosion of the land, and trash left behind.
A slight detour onto the Tuscarora Trail gives hikers a different experience, however. Originally conceived as a back-up plan when the AT’s route was threatened by development, the Tuscarora runs along the ridges of the Allegheny Mountains, starting at a juncture with the AT in Pennsylvania and winding through Maryland and West Virginia until it follows the state line with Virginia. From there, it curves through the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest and rejoins the AT in the North District of Shenandoah National Park.
This 250-mile long alternative is more rugged in parts, but easily accessible throughout, says John Stacy, the trails supervisor for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), which maintains the Tuscarora. Trailheads with reasonable parking are abundant, he says. “There are lots of places where you can park and do a day hike, along trails that extend 5-6 miles into the forest without crossing a road.”
While 99 percent of the AT is on public land, much of the Tuscarora passes over privately owned tracts. Access to hikers is only possible through the permission of the landowners. “There are families that have hosted portions of the trail since 1968,” Stacy says. “We want to work with them as good neighbors, responding to any questions or constraints they have.”
While most of these agreements are informal and thereby in danger whenever the property changes hands, some landowners who have decided to conserve their land in perpetuity with a conservation easement have also included a special provision in the easement deed that allows for public access on the part of their property that contains the trail.
The PATC itself owns two such tracts, bought from private landowners and then protected with a conservation easement held by VOF. A third segment of the Tuscarora protected by a VOF easement is owned by Susan Benson, who donated the development rights on her 158-acre property to VOF in 2016.
Benson allows hikers to park near her gate in order to access the trail, which skirts just along the edge of her property for about 1,400 feet. “It’s very accessible,” she says. “People can leave the car and go on three or four miles down the road that girds the mountain. There is a campsite just on the edge of my property they can use as well.”
More easements between PATC and willing landowners are in the works. “There is tremendous potential to connect segments of the trail and preserve them through easement agreements,” Stacy says. “There are 5 parcels just to the north of Dry Gap where we are working right now to finalize easement terms.”
As a landowner who allows the public to use the trail on her land, Benson has no regrets. “There are lovely plants here, migratory songbirds, mushrooms. It’s a natural resource,” she says. “It makes me happy to see the place used.”
Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) has given PATC a grant to improve the trail with signage and better blazing. To find out more about hiking the trail or to help PATC by volunteering for trail work, go to https://www.hikethetuscarora.org/.